Lectionary Commentaries for December 15, 2019
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44) began the new liturgical year at the End (with a capital E), with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.

 Advent 2 moved us back (chronologically speaking) to the expectation of Jesus’ coming in ministry in connection with John the Baptist (3:1-12). We stay with John the Baptist for Advent 3, but he is now in prison asking if Jesus is the one about whom he prophesied in our reading from last week.

The Revised Common Lectionary has done a poor job delineating the boundaries of this passage. The full scene comprises Matthew 11:2-19, with verses 12-14 key to Matthew’s understanding of John. Here we see that John concludes the old age, marking the transition to the new eschatological age that Jesus initiates. For Matthew, however, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical with his second coming being eschatological: the Christ event is an eschatological event that means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. 

Another problem with the delineation of the passage is that the scene has two distinct parts. In the first section, John sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the one who is coming and Jesus responds (Matthew 11:2-6). In the second section, John’s disciples have departed and Jesus discusses the importance of John with the crowd around him (verses 7-19). This second section is really an expansion of the characterization of John as Elijah, the forerunner of the messiah, as initiated in last week’s gospel reading (3:1-12).

Preachers will do well to focus on the first section of this passage and its christological emphasis. John’s question is an Advent question: “Are you the one who is coming or should we expect another?” (Matthew 11:3). Matthew captures the tension of the already/not yet by having John in prison ask whether Jesus (who is present) is the one to come (eschatological)! In Advent we paradoxically wait for the one who has already come. 

Still, it is puzzling as to why John would need to ask this question given his role of Elijah and his recognition of Jesus and statement of unworthiness at Jesus’s baptism (Matthew 3:14). Preachers should avoid psychologizing John at this point. Had Matthew wanted to explain what he was feeling or thinking that led to the question, the narrator would have told us. 

Preachers, however, have full license in psychologizing their congregations! And such psychologizing invites a simple homiletical structure. Preachers can use a “four page” form suggested by Paul Scott Wilson1

  • Page 1 describes the problem or bad news in the ancient text.
  • Page 2 presents an analogous problem/bad news in the contemporary context.
  • Page 3 transitions to the good news of divine action in the ancient text.
  • Page 4 presents analogous good news in the contemporary context.

The first half of the sermon, therefore, would draw an analogy between John’s question (exegetically unpacked on Page 1) and ours (Page 2). What is it about us that leads us as faithful Christians to nevertheless doubt and/or miss out on Christ’s eschatological significance? What metaphorical “not yet” prisons lead us to question, explicitly or in terms of the way we live our lives, whether Jesus has initiated the “already” reign of God? Preachers will need to help their congregations “see” their prisons through various imagery.

The second half of the sermon, then, is connecting Jesus’s ancient answer (Page 3) to a contemporary vision of Christ’s continuing salvific work (Page 4). 

Jesus’s answer is that John’s disciples can report back to John what they have seen and heard. (John cannot see and hear because of his imprisonment.) The focus of the answer is on the way that Jesus’ deeds (erga, Matthew 11:2) show him to be the eschatological one, whereas the readings associated with the birth narrative (which appear earlier in Matthew’s narrative but some of which will be read later in Christmastide) focus on messianic titles and geographical symbolism to unpack the author’s christology. 

Jesus’ answer to John’s question both reflects deeds readers have already seen in the narrative (summaries of healings have already been noted in Matthew 4:24; 8:16; 9:35) and echoes language from Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:7, 18; 61:1 (see also Matthew 8:17 where Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 to show that Jesus’ healings fulfill scripture).

This three-layered connection between Isaiah, the birth narrative, and this description of Jesus’ ministry presents Jesus as the center of salvation history: the one to come (in the future) is performing deeds (in the present) that fulfill prophetic expectations (of the past). This paradoxical tension between the past, present and future is tailor-made for an Advent sermon. 

The sermon only works, however, if that dynamic is extended into the contemporary experience of the congregation on Page 4. Here preachers must invite their congregations to see and hear ways the ancient Christ who is also the one to come is at work in today’s world. 

“Seeing and hearing” means the preacher must show/narrate Christ at work our contemporary context and not just declare it in some abstract manner. Certainly preachers of different theological orientations will do this differently, but the key is naming how Christ heals, offers life, and overcomes oppression in today’s world (even though there is still much “not yet” that justifies our asking the question in the first place).


1 Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon, Revised and Updated: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2018).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

When the wilderness blooms, when the desert is fertile, it’s as if nature itself sings a chorus of “Alleluia!” 

Super bloom

This spring, parts of the California wilderness experienced a rare “super bloom” event that could even be seen from space.1 Thousands of people arrived to snap images for their Instagrams, and be awed by the sight of once dusty brown hills splattered with color upon color. When the desert blooms, it blooms abundantly. Not half-heartedly. Not hidden in some lonesome valley. For a few brilliant weeks, the world is transformed into one living Van Gogh landscape (see photo).

What are the elements that lead up to a rare super bloom? Prolonged dormancy of course. Many wildflower seeds must remain asleep through many seasons and decide to wake up at roughly the same time after a long hibernation. The bloom is also helped by a long rainy season, followed by unusually cold winter to lock the moisture in.2

Harsh, undesirable conditions over many years seem to pave the way for the stunning explosion of a super bloom.

Time travel in Isaiah

We have time-traveled it seems from week 2 to week 3, though technically we still find ourselves in the section of Isaiah attributed to proto-Isaiah. However, while most of proto-Isaiah warns Israel to clean up its act and voices YHWH’s anger with the nation’s lack of justice and righteousness, this section leans into a deutero-Isaiah voice. 

It speaks to a people in exile, to a people who have been punished. Seeds lain dormant through a long rainy season and even longer frost. The prophet amplifies the promise of YHWH: the ransomed will return to Zion. There is something different about this Exodus, out of Babylon and back to Zion. The road to restoration will be paved with abundance and safety, pools of water (Isaiah 35:7) rather than needing a prophet or prophetess to strike rocks for a trickle to drink (Exodus 17:1-5; Numbers 20:1-11). The drought will be over. The journey home will be made with song. Sorrow and sighing will flee at last.

The way home

In verse 8, the word “highway” is used. But as is the case with so much of Isaiah’s language, this term is used figuratively rather than literally. Rather, the prophet refers to a holy way of life, the Sacred Way. When the people return to Zion they will practice a religion without crookedness. The way will be so straight and clear that even foolish people can follow. Nothing ferocious will hide on the path either. And all on the highway known as the Sacred Way will experience everlasting joy at long last, because YHWH, Godself, is coming to save us. More good news for those who are stuck. Isaiah describes YHWH coming in search of the ransomed not to punish (this time, not the case in the previous chapter) but to save.

How does Isaiah aim to move the people out of exile and into Zion? He anticipates each argument for not making the journey home. 

Our hands are too weak… YHWH will strengthen them (Isaiah 35:3)

Our knees are unsteady… YHWH will support them (verse 3)

The move will cause a panic attack! YHWH will come to save you (verse 4)

Salvation is a journey. And one that goes beyond an individual receiving a salvation certificate. Isaiah is wooing a broken people home to YHWH in order to restore Zion, a real place, and to establish ways of justice and righteousness in that broken land. Do our salvation images match with Isaiah’s holistic vision for wholeness? Can we, like Isaiah, anticipate our people’s arguments for staying put?

Joy Sunday

Super bloom is a fitting image on this joy Sunday in Advent, a little prelude to the joy of Christmas. A glimpse of something blooming where we thought all was lost just on the horizon. This flows beautifully into the service some of us will hold this week in our sanctuaries around December 21. Whether we call it “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night,” we get the privilege to sit with our congregants in whatever exile they find themselves in during the commercial season of “HAPPY,” and model joy, embody hope, something deeper than the saccharine seasonality Target and Hallmark have to offer.

This lection falls before the historical and theological hinge point between first and second Isaiah; between “displacement” and “restoration.”3 Before the lion and the lamb rest together, the house of Jacob experiences “the reality of loss, suffering, and dismay” as the first prophecies of first Isaiah come to pass and life as it was in Jerusalem is decimated.4 Yet, from the location of decimation comes Isaiah’s vivid message of joy.

The Lord’s glory

I notice preachers are more comfortable and creatively adept at imaging the absence of God and the brokenness of creation than they are at imaging the glory of God in the pulpit. Isaiah does both and can teach preachers a lesson in the power of vividly imaging the glory of God along with anticipating the people’s excuses for staying right where they are. 

Deserts in California suddenly exploding with super bloom? The glory of God is like that! A Panic-stricken friend emerging from paralyzing fear into a life of peace? The glory of God! Preacher, where have you seen burning sand become a pool (Isaiah 35:7)? Tongues of the speechless sing (verse 6)? Testify to it, for surely in doing so you preach to a people who are in exile and removed from the memory of YHWH what the glory of God’s presence feels/smells/sounds like.

Call it Joy and sing its tune.


1 Daniel Avery. “In Photos: California’s Wildflower Super Bloom Can Be Seen From Space” in Newsweek, April 4, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/super-bloom-2019-photos-1386440

2 Sarah Gibbens. “Why California Deserts Are Experiencing a ‘Super Bloom’ (National Geographic News, March 9, 2017) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/03/california-desert-anza-borrego-super-bloom/#close

3 Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 167.

4 Brueggemann, 167.


Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

Jason Byassee

The third Sunday in Advent has become the rare moment when Protestant churches pay a little attention to Mary, mother of God.

The candle lit this day is traditionally pink for Mary’s day. The texts from the gospel attend to Mary’s responsiveness to God and to her prayer magnifying God’s glory. Protestants have known who we are partly by being not-Catholic, so not attending to saints, to Mary, to pilgrimages and relics and the hierarchy. But Mary keeps creeping in the back door. She is the first Christian—the first one to say “yes” to God’s cockamamie scheme to save the world through an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks. She is present at key points in Jesus’ ministry and even at his ascension and at Pentecost. She is a friend of the poor, mother of believers, the one who taught Jesus to pray and who teaches us. 

The salvation announced in Psalm 146:5-10 is one that takes flesh in her womb. These psalm verses are almost a policy platform for the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate to which the church bears witness. And it starts with a beatitude—just like Jesus’ preaching does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Blessed, happy, glad, lucky, enviable is the one whose help is in the God of Jacob (Psalm 146:5). Think of all the things our world finds blessed and enviable: those who are rich, good-looking, and close to power (see verse 3). The Bible reverses these beatitudes: no, blessed is the one who has no hope other than the Lord. There is no blessing in the Bible on physical attractiveness. None whatsoever on wealth—in fact, quite the reverse. The kings in the Bible are a rogues’ gallery—even the “good” ones are disasters. The only one who is happy is the one whose God is the Lord.

The subsequent verses describe who this God is by what he does: he executes justice, gives food, sets free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, watches strangers, and upholds widows. If you look at God’s business card, it includes these jobs: establisher of orphans and benediction of the just. There is a triumvirate of those drawing God’s special care and attention in Torah and so deserving the help of God’s people: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They are, as Robert Alter says, “exemplary instances of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.”1 Those who are the lowest receive God’s greatest attention. The great preacher James Forbes often proclaims, “No one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.” Psalm 146 is God’s letter of recommendation for the powerless. Notice them. Help them. Make life with them. Become one of them. Charles Spurgeon compares the clauses from verses 5-9 to stair steps up which God leads the poor by hand. By contrast, the wicked are thrown down in this psalm in a single swift motion (verse 9b). Good is fascinating and deserving of patient attention. Evil is boring.2

Psalm 146 is itself a stair step. It comes at the tail end of the entire set of 150 psalms. It begins with an admonition for one’s own soul to praise (verse 1). The last step has every creature under heaven and upon the earth giving praise, all things animate and inanimate, hallelujahing with a crashing crescendo (Psalm 150). Psalm 146 is a sort of summary of the entire Bible, a “condensation of condensation,” one scholar calls it.3 If you want to know who God is, start with this psalm and work your way forward and back. We are tempted to trust in princes. We should not. We are tempted not to trust in the Lord, who loves and lifts the poor. We should. The whole is rooted in a theology of creation (verse 6). The God who made the sea and sky and all the other stuff is powerful enough to uplift the downtrodden. The one who made the eye can open it. The one who came among us as a stranger, who reaches out to widows and orphans, loves the righteous. St. Augustine locates humanity, all of us descended from Adam and Eve, in the “bowed down” of verse 8. We are bent low. God takes on our flesh and stands us up straight with his resurrection.4 “The Lord will reign forever,” the psalmist insists in verse 10, and the Nicene Creed echoes. This is the whole of the Bible’s good news in nuce, with enough power to fuel the sun and the other stars.

This is a psalm with dust on it (Psalm 146:4). We are creatures with dust on us. In fact, we are creatures made from dust (Genesis 3). This can be good news. The princes we are tempted to trust are dust creatures too, like us, and will return to their origin, as we all will. The Lord delivers from the dust. Not only that, he became dust, one of us, and was laid in dust like the rest of us will be. The strange way the Lord of dust delivers the poor is to become dust like them and raise some of that dust—his own body. One day he will raise all of the dust we have become, to be part of his new heaven and earth that will reign forever. For now, we have only the promise of one bit of dust raised—his, at the right hand of the Father. One day we will need no promise to trust—we will have the fulfillment. This psalm is a promise. Count on it.

And it all starts with the word of one peasant girl in response to one angel. “Here I am,” she says, echoing her foremothers and fathers through the centuries. “Let it be with me according to your word.” It is the prayer of every believer, the prayer of all creation, the prayer that the Lord of dust delights in and answers with a pregnancy, good news for the poor, and resurrection.


1 Robert Alter The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 503

2 Charles Spurgeon The Treasury of David: Spurgeon’s Classic Work on the Psalms, ed. David O. Fuller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 675.

3 Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Eric Zenger Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, trans. Linda Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 609.

4 Expositions on the Psalms VI, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City, 2004), 416.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:7-10

Mary Foskett

For many of us, Advent is most notable for its busyness, due to the rush of holiday preparations that fill the weeks before Christmas and the accompanying mix of emotions and memories that the season ushers in.

If we’re honest, we may even admit that the holiday season brims with much that has little to do with the liturgical season itself. In the frantic pace of “the holidays,” as they are commonly called in the U.S., it is very easy to lose ourselves. Suspended in Advent, in that liminal time between darkness and light, one can feel lost in the weeks leading to Christmastide. As we rush here and there, we can lose sight of the very thing for which we long most deeply.

To read the Letter of James on the Third Sunday of Advent is to be called back both to ourselves and to our great hope. He does so by first directing our attention to the human realities and everyday choices that shape our lives and give rise to the structures and values that determine the shape of our world. For this reason the letter stands out among the writings of the New Testament with its overriding concern for ethics and the life of faith that is lived in community.

In a culture dominated by the valuation of power and the accumulation of wealth, and largely driven by envy of those who possess both, James calls readers to follow an alternative way, one rooted in friendship with God rather than the world. He invites his readers to live in community that is free from envy and expressed by the kind of speech and action that is born of the wisdom that comes “from above.” This way of living is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 4:17). By arguing that “conflicts and disputes” (4:1) emerge from “friendship with the world” (4:4), James reminds us that what we value shapes who we are, both individually and collectively.

To read James in the season of Advent is to take time to pause, reflect, and recognize where in our lives we are unprepared to welcome Christ anew, and what values and choices have closed us off to Christ’s presence in our midst.

James’s letter also reminds us to be aware of the suffering that is caused by the world’s corrosive and corrupting values. When James exhorts his readers to wait for the coming of the Lord, he not only instructs them to wait with patience, he presupposes that they are doing so in the midst of suffering.

Here James infuses the celebration of Advent with a hard truth. It is the suffering of those who bear the weight of oppression that gives meaning to waiting for the coming of the Lord (James 5:7) in the first place.

No wonder then that the author places his exhortation to wait patiently immediately after his detailed condemnation of the wealthy in James 5:1-6, where his words are sharp and unsparing: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you … Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1, 4-6).

In the final verse, James draws on the courtroom imagery that he invoked in James 2:6, where he reminds his readers of the wealthy who have defrauded the poor and unjustly taken them to court. This extended condemnation of the oppression of the poor by the wealthy develops a key theme of the letter that James introduces early on (James 1:9-11; 2:1-7). The priority James places on the plight of the poor is also implied in 1:27, one of the most well-known verses in the New Testament: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The letter contrasts care for the poor with friendship with the world, which only generates cravings and covetousness, and expresses “enmity with God” (4:1-4).

The patient waiting to which the author calls readers in James 5:7-10 reveals that it is his own community that has been exploited, oppressed, and overlooked by the wealthy. As he writes in 2:6: “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?” Yet, amidst his understanding of how wealth, power, and poverty operate in the world, James is careful to remind his readers that even those who suffer at the hands of the powerful are susceptible to internalizing their values. It is all too easy to become friends with the world and to enact the values that are predominant within it. He scolds his audience for having, themselves, shown favor to the powerful over the poor and powerless (2:1-6).

Reading James in the rhythm of the liturgical year is a corrective that cuts through the distractions of the “holiday season” and calls our attention back to Advent. James reminds us that this liturgical season of preparation is also a season of repentance and penance that must take seriously the suffering in our midst. Waiting patiently for the day of the Lord is, as James’ entire letter suggests, a time for recognizing the values that shape our lives and communities and recalibrating them, as need be, so that they may be in accord with the wisdom that is from above.